Unsatisfying end, uncertain summer for Georgia Tech men’s basketball

Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner and senior guard Jose Alvarado celebrate after Saturday's 80-75 victory over Florida State in the championship game of the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, NC.

Credit: AP Photo/Gerry Broome

Credit: AP Photo/Gerry Broome

Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner and senior guard Jose Alvarado celebrate after Saturday's 80-75 victory over Florida State in the championship game of the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, NC.

Maybe Loyola Chicago would have won, anyway. Its No. 8 seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tourney is an insult. The Ramblers followed their opening victory against Georgia Tech with a decisive win over No. 1-seed Illinois. They are playing in the Sweet 16 this weekend.

Or maybe the Yellow Jackets with Moses Wright finish the game stronger and beat Loyola. They’d won eight consecutive games in the ACC with Wright, the ACC player of the year, averaging 20 points and nine rebounds. They’ll watch games this weekend and wonder what might have been.

“I definitely see us in the Sweet 16, and I see us winning the ‘natty’ (national championship) if we had our full-strength team,” Tech junior guard Michael Devoe said Thursday.

I don’t see that, but I like Devoe’s belief in his team. Besides, his hypothetical might be correct in a parallel world where Wright never contracted COVID-19. Not getting the chance to see that play out in this world was a bummer. The winning streak and the ACC tournament title were great, but the ambiguous ending left the Jackets with an unsatisfied feeling.

Now the Jackets begin an offseason filled with uncertainty. All coaches will have to manage their rosters around NCAA rules on penalty-free transfers, an extra season of eligibility for seniors and the NBA’s elongated calendar. Tech’s Josh Pastner will have to do more than most. The circumstances create a wide range of possible outcomes for his 2021-22 roster.

Devoe might go pro. One Tech senior, guard Bubba Parham, told Pastner he’s returning. Three others who played larger roles this season are undecided: Wright, Jose Alvarado and Jordan Usher. Pastner said those three probably will join Devoe in getting an evaluation from the NBA’s draft advisory committee and working out for pro teams.

Men’s college basketball is, as always, working around the NBA’s spring and summer schedule. That league’s late start has thrown off its normal timetable. Usually, college seniors are automatically eligible for the draft and underclassmen must declare by a certain date. This year seniors also must petition the NBA to be considered for the draft by an unknown date.

The deadline for eligible college players to declare their intentions normally is 60 days before the NBA draft. But the draft date hasn’t been set. The NCAA usually requires underclassmen to decide if they’ll stay in the draft 10 days after the scouting combine. The combine date hasn’t been set, either.

The draft typically is held a week or so after the end of NBA Finals, in mid-June. This year the Finals could last until July 22. The draft probably will take place near the end of that month. Instead of non-senior college players deciding in mid-April on the draft, all eligible players likely won’t have to decide until late May.

In the meantime, an unprecedented number of college players are considering transferring to new schools. The list includes a lot of good ones. That’s the inevitable outcome of the NCAA lifting its requirement that players, unlike coaches, must sit out a season after changing jobs to keep their eligibility.

Pastner said the recruits he’s pursuing in the transfer portal ask him whether Devoe and Tech’s seniors will be back. That obviously will affect their decisions. It’s possible Pastner won’t sign any of those interested players. They won’t wait around for up to two months to find out if there will be playing time for them at Tech.

Said Pastner: “Any kid we are recruiting in the portal, I’ll be honest as I always am and say, ‘Hey, look, You can come here, but if (on) July 1, Jose Alvarado tells me he wants to come back, I’m bringing Jose Alvarado back.” The same goes for Devoe, Wright and Usher.

That’s the right approach for Pastner. His players deserve time to make big decisions about their futures. From Pastner’s perspective, it’s worth the wait. Pastner said that if all those players return, they’ll be preseason top five or 10 in the national rankings. I wouldn’t go that far. But Tech would be very good in 2021-22 with the returnees, forward Jordan Meka (recovering from back surgery after playing one game) and an incoming recruiting class that ranks 15th nationally per the 247Sports Composite.

No one should blame Devoe or other players who decide they are finished playing basketball for no salary. It’s their life. Plus, it’s no longer the case that being an NBA first-round draft pick is the only way to achieve real job security as a player.

First-round picks are signed to two-year contracts guaranteed for at least $3.5 million and most also get a third option year. But NBA teams increasingly are signing second-round picks to multi-year deals with one season guaranteed at the rookie minimum salary. That will be about $1 million next season. International leagues are paying good money, too.

Devoe said he’d rather return to Tech to earn his degree rather than play in the NBA’s developmental league. That’s a valid choice. Hopefully lawmakers will make it so that Devoe and other college players can profit from their name, image and likeness. Pastner said that’s an incentive for players to stick around.

The competition will be intense in the transfer portal. Even if the Jackets had plenty of open roster spots, they’d have to beat out better programs in the market to land top players. As it is, Pastner will have to sell Tech’s positives to players who don’t know if they would play a major role for the Jackets in 2021-22.

“They are not coming here if they are a really good player, to sit,” Pastner said. “If the seniors come back, they might say, ‘Where is my time, Coach?’ Unless they are here for the long haul.”

His roster getting old and staying old is Pastner’s goal. He wouldn’t be able to meet it if his senior players didn’t have the option of playing another season. That situation also creates uncertainty. Tech’s offseason begins with ambiguity, just like its season ended.